On the particular joys of used books

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Two beloved and heavily annotated books of mine. Photo circa spring 2010.

I know I am not alone in this sentiment, but I hold used books in high esteem, often preferring them above brand-new editions. The remnants of past readers feel very special to me. I spend a good deal of time wondering about the book’s former owners, searching for vestigial clues to their identities. I read every annotation, every inscription, every book plate. I wonder if Carol and Judith ended their friendship, and that’s why Judith gave away her copy of The Stone Diaries to the library book sale. I admire John and Betty Connors’s gilt-edged, pre-printed Ex Libris sticker and wonder if we would have enjoyed their company at dinner. I muse about names and dates and symbols. I assess the handwriting, trying to ascertain the age or sex of the reader.

I once bought a very heavily and angrily annotated copy of Walden, clearly worked over by a high-school student. The student did not hold Thoreau in high regard, but he/she did seem to have read the whole book, because there were grumpy little notes and excessive underlining from start to finish. I found myself almost more interested in what the student had to say than Thoreau.

While in college, I bought a beautifully bound, royal-blue old hardback copy of Carl Sandburg’s poems on a whim at The Bookshop. I don’t even like Carl Sandburg that much. When I got home and thumbed through the volume, out dropped a photograph. And not just any photograph: It was a small rectangle, curling at the edges, displaying the Old Well and a thoroughly ivy-covered building (possibly Old East). Dated 1915. What an unexpected treasure! I framed that little photograph and it now hangs in the bedroom with the Carolina blue walls.

Importantly, The Bookshop was where I initiated my college romances. True to form, while perusing its musty shelves, I grew uncommonly animated and flirtatious, as if spouting allusions at a quick clip was the best way to cause someone to fall in love with me. I still remember conversations I had and the books I was jealously guarding in my arms when I had them. I even remember what I was wearing on these particular quasi-dates. I found Lydia Davis’s hardback translation of Swann’s Way there, back in the dark and creepy clearance section, and felt it to be a Sign from God that I had to finally read Proust, under the auspices of budding love.

What have frats done for us?

In the wake of the horrific Rolling Stone article about a 2012 gang rape at the UVA fraternity Phi Kappa Psi, I have found it hard to control my emotions, waffling between rage and sorrow. It seems that sexual violence is the theme of the year in my town, the supposedly peaceful Charlottesville.

The residents I’ve talked to, many of whom are UVA alums, are grieved, but sadly, many of them are not surprised. The general sentiment is: Yeah. That sounds like something frats would do — and have done for years. And then there is the outpouring of feelings of powerlessness against an entrenched system of violence, adolescent stupidity, and misogyny.

This is my question: How powerless are we?

To me, there seems to be a very simple answer, or at least, a practical solution that could begin a tidal wave of much-needed change: Shut down all the fraternities (and not just for a few weeks, to pacify public outrage).

No, this wouldn’t solve the problem of rape. Sexual violence is often committed by men who are not frat brothers. No, not all frats are evil. Obviously, not all frats are raping women. There are some genuinely lovely and good-hearted men who are in or were in fraternities, and I am delighted to know many such men.

Phi Gamma Delta House University of Virginia-Fraternity from Negatives from the Charlottesville photographic studio plus an index volume  Holsinger's Studio (Charlottesville, Va.)  1890-1938  Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.
Phi Gamma Delta house at UVA. University photo archives, 1890-1938.

But let’s discuss honestly what this action could do. What are the advantages of the greek system in American universities? What have fraternities done for university cultures?

Advantages of frats

  • Having a bunch of friends that your parents purchased for you who are all in your same social class. Accordingly, a sense of unity, loyalty, and belonging within this artificial, homogenous family
  • Business connections. Hey, later in life, you may be asked to conduct judicial review of your own frat when it faces gang rape charges! Sweet deal.
  • Parties! Which naturally involve plenty of alcohol, with the added benefit of skirting the law on underage drinking (due to lack of enforcement)
  • Some mandatory community service

Disadvantages of frats

  • Parties! Copious alcohol + no law enforcement/adult oversight + groupthink = a perfect storm to generate a mass of bad decisions.
  • Hazing. Most panhellenic organizations will tell you that hazing is illegal. But most frats will admit that they still do it. Just a little bit. Just enough to maybe kill just one student a year (as was common at UNC). It’s just one human being. He wanted to fit in!
  • Frat houses that are private property (like many of the houses at UVA) create a perfect culture of protection for frat activities. You can wreak fairly unsupervised havoc to your heart’s content. A private frat house is also a perfect location to trap and rape women with zero consequences to yourself and your brothers.
  • When you do get in trouble, you benefit from a large degree of protection from university officials because you’re rich. Accordingly, your parents and your frat’s alumni hold clout, because they too are well off, and your university doesn’t want to piss them off by punishing you.
  • A culture that encourages a strong sense of brotherhood (aka idiotic male behavior), often culminating in a high degree of misogyny.
  • A culture that fosters racism and elitism. I can’t even remember how many times UNC frats got in trouble for racist and sexist parties while I was working for the student paper; too many times to count. The elitism is so blatant it’s almost not worth mentioning. Such organizations, like fraternities, that exist solely to exalt the most privileged members of society seem crass and anachronistic in 21st-century America.
  • The exaltation of tradition. Frats have existed for a long time and were often the first organizations established at American universities. There’s a strong feeling that we must protect frats, at all costs, because they have been around for so long. Particularly at such a university as UVA, which views history and tradition as a veritable religion, long-held customs and cultures are very slow to change — or even to admit that they need to change. (Reveling in that kind of circular logic of, well, we’ve always done it this way and therefore it is perfect and unchangeable.)

Some Surrounding Facts

  • Men in fraternities are more likely to commit sexual assault than men who are not in fraternities (NASPA Journal, 2007). The relevant and especially damning passage from this research on rape prevention:
    • Among men on college campuses, fraternity men are more likely to commit rape than other college men (Bleeker & Murnen, 2005; Boeringer, 1999). Thus, rape prevention efforts often target fraternity men (Choate, 2003; Larimer, Lydum, Anderson, & Turner; 1999; Foubert & Newberry, 2006). Compared to their peers on college campuses, fraternity men are more likely to believe that women enjoy being physically “roughed up,” that women pretend not to want sex but want to be forced into sex, that men should be controllers of relationships, that sexually liberated women are promiscuous and will probably have sex with anyone, and that women secretly desire to be raped (Boeringer, 1999). Beyond the aforementioned quantitative findings, qualitative research suggests that fraternity culture includes group norms that reinforce within-group attitudes perpetuating sexual coercion against women. These cultural norms have the potential to exert powerful influences on men’s behavior (Boswell & Spade; 1996).

  • About 30% of UVA’s undergraduates belong to a fraternity or a sorority.  (In contrast to other regional schools, UNC, my alma mater, has 17% of the student body involved in greek life; Duke University has about 38%.)
  • About 55% of sexual assault occurs at parties, and in about 72%–81% cases of reported rape, the woman was intoxicated.
  • Women were not officially (fully) enrolled as undergraduates at UVA until 1972. So, comparatively, this is a school that is still figuring out how to treat women as humans. Let’s be honest: The Great Demigod Thomas Jefferson wasn’t exactly a role model in this arena. (By contrast, UNC enrolled its first woman student in 1897.)
Phi Gamma Delta, the second fraternity chartered at UNC-Chapel Hill, in 1851.
Members of Phi Gamma Delta, the second fraternity chartered at UNC-Chapel Hill, in 1851.

Let’s be clear: This kind of evil, predatory behavior is not exclusive to UVA. While at UNC, I heard about a story a year about a girl being raped by her frat date, and I heard collectively two separate stories about women in our circle of acquaintances who suffered gang rape at frats. Being assaulted by frat brothers was a common horror story at UNC. A few miles down the road at Duke, my friend, who was in a frat there, reported that many Duke frats had “progressive parties” in which one of the rooms was the “date rape” room, into a which a girl would be lured and sexually assaulted, and then moved on to the next station at the party. These parties are still happening there today, and no frat has been punished for them.

Sexual assault happens at colleges all across this country, which is why this is a problem of epidemic proportions — even if the evidence is scattered and hushed, tending toward horror stories that women quietly share with one another.

Why would we not try to stop at least SOME of those regular assaults against women by closing down institutions that are famous for sexual violence?

Again, frat brothers are not the only agents of evil. There are plenty of other men out there who are committing sexual assault without the assistance of the greek system. But I earnestly believe that we can stop an enormous proportion of the problem of recurring sexual violence on campuses by shutting down fraternities.

If we shuttered frats, students could still join clubs. Parties would still be had. Gratuitous amounts of alcohol would still be consumed. And, sadly, I am not so naive to think that sexual violence would end. Women would still be in danger on a regular basis, so there’s that, to pacify the traditionalists.

But we could shut down a series of long-standing institutions that promote some of the worst sides of human nature: entitlement, machismo, sexism, recklessness, and a grievous lack of respect for human dignity. At this point, I think frats are beyond saving. They are too far gone to implement reform. The entire culture is morally bankrupt and has been for decades. Good men can exist inside this system, as we all know, but the bad that frats generate seems to far outweigh the good.

Is it not worth it? To make some wealthy alumni angry in exchange for improving university culture and perhaps protecting the lives and bodies of girls?

I don’t think university officials think it’s worth it; they’d rather have the money. Money wins, just about every time, when you put a young woman’s life on the scales.

Again, I’m not stupid. I don’t really believe frats will be shut down. Frats will continue to grow and thrive and rape. Those men who assaulted their dates will graduate and become prominent members of society. They’ll become fathers. They’ll pass on their beliefs to their children. And their little juniors will go on to college, join a frat, and start the cycle all over again.

But if we don’t start seriously questioning the worth of some of our most cherished institutions, our world will not improve. And we will continue to hear the same horrific stories, year after year after year. I am trying to be hopeful. In the meantime, I won’t stay silent about what I perceive to be a vicious cancer in our universities.

If the initial article didn’t make you angry, here’s some additional reading that might.

A full week

Dinner with Stephanie (+ Baby Fishwick) at Monsoon.

Girl time = so good. Stephanie and I grabbed dinner on Wednesday night at Monsoon and talked about many things over our virgin strawberry daiquiris, including but not limited to street harassment, babies, and conflicts of etiquette. She is so lovely and bright.

Downtown at dusk.

It’s not exactly a gorgeous skyline, but I always like walking over the bridge toward downtown. The view always makes me remember, “Oh, I live here now, in this town where we once arrived as strangers.”

The photo is from Friday night, taken on our way to meet Guion’s beloved professor and mentor Alan Shapiro at South Street to watch the UNC vs. Ohio game. He is delightful company–so brilliant and kind and warm–and we talked of many things. I bonded with him particularly on our mutual love of Marilynne Robinson* and Wei Tchou. (*Somewhat out of the blue, Shapiro announced, “Housekeeping is probably one of the greatest novels in the English language.” And then I felt really justified in my unmitigated praise of that book. It is the greatest. Shapiro says so.)

"Mad Men" party at Colin and Rita's. (Mary Boyce + G)

Last night, Colin and Rita hosted a “Mad Men” season premiere party, in which we were supposed to wear our best “Mad Men”-esque outfits. For men, this just meant wearing a tie (or parting your hair with lots of pomade, as Colin displayed); for women, pearls + dress + pumps seemed to be the easy formula.

Rita, industrious housewife.
In our "Mad Men" best.

Very fun gathering (with great cocktails), but did anyone else think the premiere was kind of… boring? It was funnier and lighter than the closing episodes of last season (Stan always helps with that. And we were all humming zou bizou bizou afterward), but I felt like it was lacking some spark, some solid Draper broody moments. Or maybe the episodes will necessarily be duller in the absence of the incarnation of maternal evil.

Babies and old men

Nettles at The Southern.
Happy Phinehas and his dear mother.
Baby buns! Phin is clearly appalled to be embarrassed in this way.

Oh, this schizophrenic half-winter of ours: Snowstorm this morning and now, at noon, it has ceased and the sun is coming out.

This weekend: Nettles, the Hill and Wood, and Luke Wilson played at The Southern; Matt Kleberg had a really wonderful opening at McGuffey; I began to re-read and fall in love with Absalom, Absalom! and retract every bad thing I ever said about it; and we got to watch UNC gloriously shame Duke at the McDermott’s on brew day. A very good weekend, by my estimation.

On Friday, I transcribed a painstaking, largely unsuccessful interview with a 106-year-old man, a legend in the industry. These were the important takeaways to me: If you are 106, you have the right to say things like, “Are you here just because you failed in the movie business?” to the unctuous young videographer coaxing you for an answer you thought you already gave. If you are 106, you don’t have to do anything if you don’t feel like it. If you are 106, your brain will start to winnow out all of the unimportant things, so that when the interviewer asks you to talk about your big career highlights, you will instead talk about your sons and how they graduated at the top of their class and how they tried to avoid going to war and how you named them after your best friends.

On being a feminist and a Christian

Hiking at ShenandoahIn the community I grew up in, the phrase “Christian feminist” would have been perceived as a laughable oxymoron. Surely, one could not be both a Christian and a feminist! This is what my childhood community believed and taught. For all of its benefits, the evangelical homeschool community has never been a champion for women. Thankfully, my parents were thinking humans. They never forced us to conform to our culture’s limiting and backward perspectives of women, which advocated that girls stay home and learn to sew and practice “godly homemaking,” in preparation for the strapping husband who would show up at their doorsteps to court them in a pre-arranged agreement between their respective fathers. We knew some families who wouldn’t let their girls learn how to drive or go to college. This is not a joke. These extremely patriarchal notions were taught, believed, and perpetuated. I am always grateful, however, that these beliefs were not taught, believed, or perpetuated by my parents. My sister, for heaven’s sakes, became a nationally acclaimed hockey player. If that’s not a slap in the face to the conservative picture of meek, dainty girlhood, I don’t know what is.

As I grew up, I learned to laugh about the misogynistic ways of the community I was raised in. All of the tight-fisted and closed-minded reasons I had for clinging to conservative gender philosophies began to fall away. My university education was eye-opening, as it was for all of us to varying degrees. In particular, I began to respect women as artists and academics in a way that I had not before. My primary school and high school education, while broad, was traditional and credible information always came down from the infallible hands of a white man. The university introduced a new way of thinking and a new way of perceiving women as leaders, teachers, and creators. UNC-Chapel Hill, unlike other universities of its size and prestige, does not give preference to applicants based on gender; so, UNC’s class profile is nearly 60 percent female. I had no shortage of intelligent, capable, ambitious young women to surround myself with. As you know by now, I also fell in love with Virginia Woolf and her beautiful and compelling words in her essays, novels, and letters were particularly formative for me.

But as all of my old beliefs about women were chipped away, what continued to bother me was how those patriarchal ideas about men and women weren’t entirely gone from my life. Vestiges of these patriarchal politics cropped up in the Christian groups and churches all around me. Yes, they weren’t as blatant as what I knew as a homeschooler, but the church at large wasn’t very progressive toward women. The general message I received from church was that I, as a woman, was expected to serve on the cupcake committee but not contribute to church leadership, which was a boys-only club; I was expected to be a stay-at-home mother and if I wasn’t, I was failing God, America, and my children; I needed men to teach me anything worth knowing.

This struck me as odd. It still does, I guess. Jesus was all about justice and fairness for women. Things get murky with Paul and other writers, but if we’re just talking about what Jesus did and said, his approach toward women was extremely radical and loving. Women were not second-class humans to Jesus, although they were to the rest of his entire civilization. Jesus would not have asked the ladies he knew to bake cupcakes while the men did important stuff. No! Some of the very first churches were started by women in women’s homes (at least in the beginning, until they were edged out of any positions of leadership). From what we know of Jesus in the Gospels, women deserved the same respect, attention, and education that men did. While the world at large still doesn’t believe this (yes, even us “modern” Americans, where women are STILL paid 77 cents for every male dollar for the same jobs), shouldn’t the Church at least believe this?

Yet. It’s not polite to self-identify as a feminist among Christians. This was something I learned early on. Eyebrows shoot up. Women whisper that you shouldn’t say that; don’t you want to get married? Men back away. Suddenly, you’re not a thinking human, you’re a MAN HATER! A destroyer of FAMILY VALUES! A lot of Christian men I know are afraid of feminist women. In their defense, they may have met some unfortunately vociferous and self-righteous feminists who made them feel evil just for being male. That’s wrong. But this, however, is not the majority of feminists. The majority of feminists I know love men and want men to do well and prosper. But they also want women to do well and prosper. That’s all. When I say I’m a feminist, all I mean is that women should be treated like Jesus treated them. In love, fairness, justice, and equality under the law. The majority of women around the world today are not treated with fairness and justice. This is why I call myself a Christian feminist.

Feminist friends find it hard to believe that I’m a Christian. It goes both ways; they also see the terms as exclusive. I remember the disapproving and surprised looks from my Harvard-educated lesbian thesis adviser when she found out that not only was I a Christian, but I was also getting married at the age of 22. “I know how this looks,” I always wanted to tell her. “I’m writing a thesis about the subjugation of married woman in a patriarchal society, and here I am getting married straight out of college! I know it sounds like I have no self-awareness! Maybe I don’t. But I think these values of feminism and Christianity can live together peaceably.”

They can, after all. If Jesus wasn’t a feminist, I don’t know who is.

Family love: Kelsey

I am writing a series of posts about why I love my (immediate) family. This is the fifth installment. You can read the other posts here. All wedding photographs courtesy of the wonderful Meredith Perdue.

Kels, Kelseyka

She was my first playmate, even though I did not welcome her to the world with kindness. Shortly after she was born, my mother would hear Kelsey crying and come in to find me standing on her little baby hands with an innocent face — or trying to ride on her back as if she were a rocking horse. I was not the best of big sisters, clearly. Yet Kelsey never showed me anything except abundant love.

It is common knowledge in our family that Kelsey is the sweetest among us four kids, followed closely by Sam. (I rank last on the sweetness totem pole, in case you are wondering.) She was born with a pure, golden heart. She loves everyone. Where I am quick to see the negative and the bad, Kelsey immediately finds the good and the positive. I think her only fault is that she wants everyone to be happy. If you could call that a fault.

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Kelsey answered my father’s lifelong prayer of an athletic child. After he had three girls, I think Dad had more or less given up on having a son, and so Kelsey was designated as his surrogate boy child. (It was determined early on that I would not be able to fulfill this role. I did not display any considerable athletic prowess; I wanted to stay inside and wear dresses and read books.) Kelsey was always climbing on things, throwing balls, twisting her body into bizarre shapes. I took ballet classes and loved the delicacy, the inherent femininity of it all; but Kelsey took gymnastics classes — the tough, intense side of little girl sports. She excelled at the gym and was a rising star until my mother pulled her out, concerned about what a gymnastics career would do to her body and self-esteem (and this was probably a good idea).

To my mother’s chagrin, however, Kelsey took up an even less feminine sport than gymnastics: She became a hockey star. What started as a nightly series of cul-de-sac games with the neighborhood kids became a prodigious career as one of the nation’s best women inline hockey players.

I have always been so proud of watching her on the rink. She plays with grace and strength. When she started out, there were no girls’ teams in our region, so she had to play with the boys. This was no problem for her, as she often outmaneuvered them all. I distinctly remember sitting on the bleachers during a game when a guy beside me said, “Whoa! Look at that dude! He’s awesome!” I followed his pointing finger and then politely informed him, “That’s not a dude. That’s my SISTER.” He didn’t believe me until the game was over and she took off her helmet. It was like a scene from one of those girl-power-kind-of-based-on-a-true-story-made-for-TV Disney movies.

Sister time

Kelsey is nicer than almost all humans. I have only rarely seen her angry (despite what the knife-wielding picture below may suggest). She always apologizes first, a quality that infuriated me when I was little because it meant that I couldn’t stay angry at her for very long.

So excited to be 21

She’d be the last person to tell you so, but Kelsey is also incredibly smart. With all due respect to Sam and Grace, Kelsey wins the title of Smartest Sibling in our family. She taught herself calculus when she was 14. She was the only one among us who displayed any talent for the more advanced topics of learning, such as statistics and science. Kelsey was accepted into numerous Ivy League universities, but she decided to come to UNC-Chapel Hill after being awarded the coveted and prestigious Morehead-Cain scholarship (which is, essentially, a golden ticket to the most charmed life ever). She was the first homeschooled student to be given this award in the program’s history. This summer, she worked as a research intern for Madeleine Albright’s consulting firm in D.C. We all expect Kels to become the Secretary of State in a short matter of time.

In short, Kelsey is the consummate woman. She is beautiful, loving, and smarter than everyone else. She can do anything and that’s something I will always believe.

My life in chapters

Chapter One: A blissfully happy childhood, in which my greatest concerns are how many library books I am allowed to bring home and how many baby rabbits we can smuggle over from the neighbor’s back yard.

Chapter Two: The dark days of middle school, in which I fill up many dramatic journals and feel murky and confused inside.

Chapter Three: High school, in which my weirdly conservative debater identity takes hold; in which I feel that I am very popular, even though I am homeschooled and my entire social circle is about 40 people.

Chapter Four: Freshman year of college, in which I feel elated and totally excited about everything; in which I date a boy for the first time; in which I am still very judgmental.

Chapter Five: My sophomore year in college, in which everything falls apart and I am rebuilt again.

Chapter Six: My summer in Tokyo, in which my entire worldview is broadened; in which my Japanese language abilities make exponential strides; in which I have never worked harder in my entire life.

Chapter Six: Junior year in college, in which I am in love with Guion and find that he changes everything; in which I am happy, genuinely happy again.

Chapter Seven: Summer working for the Denver Post, in which I become an adult; in which I find a new, bold, extroverted self emerge, a self who makes new friends and invites them hiking every week; in which I am more fit and joyful than I have ever been before.

Chapter Eight: Senior year of college, in which Guion decides to marry me; in which I live in an almost constant state of stress; in which I learn that living in a house with six other women is difficult but has its benefits; in which I finish my thesis and feel very accomplished; in which I plan my wedding and graduate.

Chapter Nine: Our first year of marriage, in which we are excited to be together every single day; in which we move to Charlottesville; in which I get my first full-time job and he starts graduate school; in which we fall in love with a town and its people.

Chapter Ten: Our second year of marriage, which has just begun; in which we think we might just stay here forever, for who could feel this content?

The Abby alphabet

Remember when you were 12 and you and your friends would exchange e-mail personality quizzes? Or you’d post them on your baby MySpace or Xanga pages? Well, this is kind of like that. Except for semi-grown-up bloggers. (Found at the lovely blog The Lighthouse Keeper.)

The farm! That is one stylized, serious-looking farm. Source: Pinmarklet

Ambition: To live on a small working farm with my husband and raise a few children and a pack of dogs. I would also like to continue my education as a writer and editor, whether that includes graduate school or moving up the publishing industry ladder.

Bad habit: Judging people or things extremely quickly. Flying into microscopic rages when tiny things don’t go my way.

City: Well, Charlottesville, because we love it here, but I think my spirit city is Denver. I adore Denver. I think my body gets a rush of endorphins whenever I remember my summer there.

Drink: Tea, of course!

Education: B.A., summa cum laude, English and Journalism, UNC-Chapel Hill. Currently engaging in wishful thinking about a master’s degree in English.

Food: Mainly fruit. Not enough vegetables, but I eat them daily (lately, we’re into asparagus, kale, potatoes, and bell peppers). I could also live on a steady diet of pasta and cheese.

Justin Timberlake. Source: Bing

Guilty pleasures: Trawling breed rescue agencies for dogs I can’t yet adopt. And Justin Timberlake.

Hometown: Charlotte, North Carolina, although I tend to claim Davidson, because it’s more interesting and it’s where my parents currently live.

Ice cream: The Four C’s from Chaps Ice Cream on the downtown mall (chocolate, cherries, chocolate chips). Or anything that involves chocolate.

Jonesing for: A dog! Or an unlimited supply of perfect watermelon.

Pure kryptonite. Source: Pinmarklet

Kryptonite: Puppies.

Lookalike: Hm. I don’t know. My theory is that people can’t really differentiate the faces of women with curly hair, and so that’s why people tell me I look like Emmy Rossum or Keri Russell. It’s just because we all have curly hair. We don’t actually share a resemblance. I wish my lookalike was Gwyneth. Or SWINTON.

Still from "The Royal Tenenbaums." Source: Google images

Movie: The Royal Tenenbaums will always have my heart, 100 percent.

Nicknames: Abba, Shabbage, Shabbarge, Flabby, Shabs, Abigail, Abberini, Abs, Bob.

Obsession: Making lists. Dogs. Reading, reading, reading.

Perfume: I don’t wear it that often, but my sisters got me a bottle of perfume from the Tokyo Milk line called French Kiss. I like it. It makes me feel glamorous.

Quirk: Pulling my ears back like a dog when someone makes me angry.

Regrets: Not being more open-minded and generous in high school.

Starbucks: No, thanks.

Talent: Reading! I can read real good.

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Upper quad, UNC campus. My heart sobs a little when I look at this photo. I want to go back! Source: Me

University: UNC-Chapel Hill.

Vacation: Anywhere in the mountains. We live in the Blue Ridge mountains now, but I still can’t get enough of them. My perfect place is a great field at the foot of a row of folded mountains.

Wine: Malbec or a dry white wine. I still can’t remember the names of the white wines I actually like…

X: X to living in fear.

Years: 23.

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Chapel of the Cross, where we met and were married. Source: Me

Zen: I have a few notions of zen. 1) Outdoors with my husband and my (future) dog; 2) Reading or writing in a room of my own; 3) The Compline service at the Chapel of the Cross.

OK, now it’s your turn. Go! See, isn’t it fun to be in middle school again?

Week 8: Thank-you notes to teachers

In honor of my sister Grace, I am imposing a set of weekly challenges on myself. For 12 weeks, I will attempt a different “challenge” each week–to do one thing every day for seven days, ranging from serious to silly. At the end of each week, I’ll let you know how it goes.

This week’s challenge was inspired by blogger Erin Loechner, who challenged herself to write thank-you notes to 20 memorable and inspirational teachers. Teachers don’t get nearly enough credit in this country and it’s a perpetual mystery to me. Good teachers are responsible for most of the successes in our lives and yet we rarely remember to go back and thank them. In my own small way, that’s what I attempted to do this week.

Teacher 1. Mary Sellers

Mrs. Sellers taught my online AP English Composition class when I was a shy and yet pompous 9th-grader. When you’re homeschooled, you get to learn in a lot of non-traditional ways and online classes were one of those ways for me. In many ways, it was a strange dynamic, but Mrs. Sellers always managed to make our web classroom warm, friendly, and encouraging. She invested so much time in us as students and her hospitality was extraordinary. Mrs. Sellers stayed in touch with many of us even after we had finished her class and I was always impressed by her generosity, particularly as she was already busy with homeschooling her own children.

Teacher 2. Marc Cohen

Professor Cohen is important to me in many ways: He convinced me to be an English major and he introduced me to the great literary love of my life, Virginia Woolf. He taught my Intro to 18th-20th Century British Lit. class during my first semester as a freshman at UNC-Chapel Hill. Unlike many professors these days, Marc Cohen actually cared about teaching–and he was very, very good at it. He was creative, encouraging, and enthusiastic and I’m so thankful I was able to have him as a teacher when I arrived at Carolina. I also really appreciated that his syllabus was uniquely focused on great British female authors; we only read women novelists for the novels in that class, which was practically unheard of, especially in the British Lit classes. I read Mrs. Dalloway for the first time and I fell in love.

Teacher 3. Bill Cloud

Professor Cloud scared a lot of us in the Journalism School. He well over six feet tall and he spoke with a deep, intimidating voice and he liked to yell at you when you mixed up “illicit” and “elicit.” He once gave me a 50 on a paper because I spelled Brussels sprouts “Brussel sprouts.” I will never make that mistake again for as long as I live! But for all of his aggressive teaching methods, Professor Cloud is largely responsible for getting me a job. He prompted me to apply for the Dow Jones News Fund internship, which I never would have considered without his encouragement. Because of him, I spent an absolutely amazing summer working as a copy editor at the Denver Post. He’s served as my academic reference on numerous occasions and I can’t say enough how grateful I am for his influence. Professor Cloud has been an invaluable career resource for me and for many others, and that’s why I will always recommend him to other J-School students, even though he can make you cry in class.

Teacher 4. George Lensing

Gracious, eloquent, humble, and endlessly fascinating, Professor George Lensing taught the best class I ever took at Carolina, 20th-century poetry. I didn’t really get poetry until I heard Professor Lensing talk about it. We covered a few poems in each class, but we really covered them; we’d spend an hour talking about two lines of Robert Lowell. And then he’d start class with the story of having lunch with Elizabeth Bishop in the Brazilian jungle. Or when he had to squire Robert Frost around UNC’s campus for the day. No big deal. In my opinion, he’s the gem of the UNC English Department and it will be a sad day when he retires (which I heard rumored may be happening sooner than later). He also urged me to write an honors thesis, which was a tortured decision. But with Professor Lensing on my team, I felt like I could do anything.

Teacher 5. Erin Carlston

Professor Carlston was another very intimidating professor. She knew everything; she was fluent in most romance languages; she studied at Harvard and Yale; and she had read every important book–twice. She also didn’t let students get away with crappy writing. You had to labor to pass her class–but if and when you did, you felt like you’d reached the pinnacle of academic success. I took Introduction to Modernism with her and met many previously unread authors that came to be listed among my favorites. After that year ended, I decided to write my thesis on Virginia Woolf and timidly approached her to ask if she’d be my thesis adviser. She graciously replied that she would. Over the next year, Professor Carlston spent countless hours meeting with me, hashing out ideas, and reading and editing my often embarrassingly immature drafts. The slightest compliment from her–“This is a nice sentence.”–could make my entire week. You always knew that she meant exactly what she said and she would never give you false encouragement. She had a million things going on when she was helping me with my thesis–between finishing her own book, teaching a handful of classes, serving on numerous committees, and advising another undergrad thesis on Woolf–and yet when you met with her, you felt like your work was the most important thing on her agenda. Her advice and her edits undoubtedly made me a better writer and my gratitude to her is boundless.

Teacher 6. Mary-Lynn Whitman

I think we can all identify that one teacher who, early on, saw potential in you when no one else really did. Mrs. Whitman was that person for me. I was a shy, arrogant, and self-conscious little girl when I first met Mrs. Whitman in an art class that I took with her son, Patrick. She was bright, intellectual, and full of enthusiasm and knowledge. Even though she was already busy homeschooling her kid, she decided to take me under her wing. Her former life as a children’s book editor equipped her to teach me and critically evaluate my bombastic attempts at writing when I was in late elementary school and early middle school. I would come to her house with a few essays and she would spend hours with me talking about how I could improve and how I could become an even better writer. She saw promise in me, that there was hope that I could be a better writer and a better human, when most just saw a snotty and bossy kid. I am humbled by her attention, even now.

Teacher 7. Teresa Farson

How do you begin to thank the person who taught you everything? My mom gave up her whole life to teach the four of us. She wanted the best for us in every area of our lives and sacrificed constantly so that we could succeed. In our childhood, she endeavored to make learning fun, to spark our imaginations and innate curiosity, rather than make learning about conforming to a pre-defined mold and filling out blanks on worksheets. As a great advocate of “hands-on learning,” we figured out early on that there was no division between Life and School for us; the two were the same and every moment was an educational one. We studied botany on nature walks; animal biology when she took us to the race track; art through our monthly visits to the Mint Museum of Art. I didn’t understand why my neighborhood friends hated school so much. School was everywhere; it was our entire lives. Mom also instilled in us the principle that we were primarily responsible for our educations. If you were not educated, it was no one’s fault but your own. Many people ask me how it was possible that I could succeed at a university after being homeschooled for 12 years. Wasn’t I afraid? Wasn’t I unsure how to adapt to a classroom? Did I even know how to take tests? My transition to college was actually very smooth. Because I had been responsible for my education for years, the freshman concerns of self-control and time management were disciplines that I had already been practicing since I was young. I believe my mom is Superwoman and I don’t know, even now, how she did it all–and how she still does it (with one kid still at home). I know a thank-you note won’t cut it for all of the gratitude I owe her. But, Mom, for everything: THANKS.

Next week, I will be trying to study for the GRE every day! I’m not planning on taking it any time soon, but I go back and forth on the grad school conundrum almost daily and this is my haphazard attempt to add some discernment to my life. Until then!

Monday Snax

I am writing now, having recovered from something of a bummer weekend that was redeemed by girlfriends. It was a bummer because it SNOWED yesterday and because of the snow, my parents decided not to come visit us, as they had previously planned. I was really sad about this, but I was able to have a good weekend overall. I spent the whole of my Saturday with my friend Anna and then Guion and I ran errands together on Sunday and then Liz E. came over for tea. We all pretended like the disgusting and wrong snow wasn’t there and that certainly helped. It’s also supposed to snow on my birthday this week. SUPER. Really super, Virginia.

In other far more exciting news, Guion’s band Nettles is opening tonight for The Welcome Wagon at the Haven in downtown Charlottesville. We are so thrilled and it’s bound to be a really excellent show. If you’re remotely around town, please come! Doors are at 7 and tickets cost $10.

Snax with a cup of hearty black tea:

Behind the Scenes, Nepal Documentary. My little sister never fails to amaze me. I can’t believe she got to do this! The documentary sounds absolutely incredible, too. I can’t wait to see it! (Como Say What?)

Book Cover Archive. This is one of the main reasons why I find it hard to embrace Kindle or Nook or whatever e-reader people use these days. What is going to happen to all of these truly beautiful and amazing book covers when we don’t read paper anymore? This I ask you with furrowed brow, 21st Century. For the book- and design-minded among you, enjoy this excellent collection. (Book Cover Archive)

Sunscreen and Sunblock Are Not the Same Thing. Who knew? I certainly didn’t. (Broken Secrets)

Four Years After a Death, a Gift Continues to Inspire. A sweet and thoughtful reflection on the life of former UNC mascot Jason Ray, whose legacy endures in the minds and–literally–hearts of others. (New York Times)

Vintage Basketball. Awesome photographs of women’s basketball teams from the early 1900s. Love it. Love the Victorian coiffures mixed with the determined grin of these early female athletes. I feel proud of them and yet I don’t know a thing about them. (Wolf Eyebrows)

Rough Scans from My Recent Trip to Japan. Emily Shur is an incredible photographer and here she shares some recent photographs from Japan, prior to the earthquake and tsunami, I believe. Her photographs are so beautifully composed. To me, they speak carefully of the symmetry and silence that pervades so much of the Japanese landscape. (Emily Shur)